If our society progresses rapidly from one trend to another, online trends have an even shorter shelf-life. In The Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey makes the point in perhaps its most convicting form: online empathy just doesn’t last. Pointing at the Paris attacks, she considers the metrics for how briefly social media platforms actually focused on the tragedy before moving on to other more palatable topics.

Certainly most of the people Dewey writes about would all say they empathize with the Paris attacks; so without casting any doubt on that, perhaps it’s worth considering how we empathize online. You might say the online trends and hashtags don’t accurately reflect our true empathy – and that may be the case. We could also assume that many people wish to convey their true, authentic, and even deep empathy online. But that leaves only two explanations for Dewey’s data: either we’re inaccurately perceived or we’re less empathetic than we should be. Both are problematic.

What Dewey sees as most troublesome is this: “After a tragedy like the one in Paris, we need time for sustained, contemplative thought. And there is no time for anything, ever – the Internet moves on.” If meaningful empathy could be measured in quantity alone, Paris certainly has that in spades, thanks in large part to the internet; so many have conveyed their grief through statements, profile pictures, tweets, and more. But without the time for “sustained, contemplative thought,” the nature of that empathy becomes like so many other online trends: passing in and out of popularity, lacking in quality, and frequently superficial. (Remember the Liking Isn’t Helping ads?) In the New York Post, Rich Lowry puts it bluntly: “Paris doesn’t need your hashtag ‘heroics.’

In his classic work Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver gave us a prophetic warning of this very pitfall: “One of the great conspiracies against philosophy and civilization, a conspiracy immensely aided by technology, is just this substitution of sensation for reflection.” Weaver’s point – and Dewey’s as well – is not that “sensation” itself is bad or wrong; it’s just a poor substitute for authentic reflection. In the words of Marvin Gaye, ain’t nothing like the real thing.

Image Credit: Jillian Chilson